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New Istanbul bookstore-cafe focuses on Arab culture, refugee experience

A small group of Syrian intellectuals has founded a bookstore-cafe in Istanbul, hoping to bridge cultures and promote Arab refugees' rich literary and cultural heritage.

ISTANBUL — According to UN statistics, more than 4 million Syrians have now fled the protracted war and become refugees in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees expects the total number of refugees from Syria to exceed 4.27 million by the end of 2015. 

Turkey has become the biggest host of refugees in the world. Syrians make up 45% of the total number of refugees in the country. As the number of Syrians in Turkey, especially Istanbul, increases, a group of Syrian intellectuals has sought to revive the Syrian cultural scene and create a platform for cultural exchange between Arabs and Turks. In this context, the first major Arabic bookstore in Istanbul was inaugurated in June under the name of Pages, or Safahat in Arabic.

Samer Qadri, a Syrian painter and one of the founders of the bookstore and cafe, told Al-Monitor, “Pages aims to be the first Arab cultural platform in Turkey to allow cultural exchange between Arabs, Turks and all other nationalities, given Istanbul’s central location and the fact that it attracts tourists from various countries.”

Pages displays books in Arabic, English, French and Turkish. Qadri said, “The bookstore was founded by four people: three Syrians and a Jordanian friend. We decided to open up a bookstore in Istanbul and personally funded it in the hope it will represent a fresh Arab cultural facade to contribute to the spreading of Arabic and translated books, as well as organizing lectures and cultural and artistic events to reflect the Arab refugee experiences, Syrians’ in particular.”

Qadri stressed that the bookstore and cafe is not intended to make a profit, as all events, seminars and exhibitions are free of charge. For a small fee, people can check out books or buy them for affordable prices. Pages also provides special shipping services from Arab and international publishers to facilitate access to books and avoid high shipping fees, which might be a burden some frequenters of the bookstore, especially students, cannot shoulder.

Qadri said refugees need a certain cultural climate that represents them and compensates for what the war in their country has cost them. “Most of the Arabic books are written by Syrians and tackle [themes of the] revolution without any discrimination based on ideology, political affiliation or religion. The bookstore also displays hundreds of works by Arab and foreign writers and intellectuals in the fields of literature, politics, art and philosophy.”

Qadri said Pages has a particular emphasis on children and youths. He said an entire section was allocated for children and features books, activities and toys. He said, “Before the outbreak of the revolution in Syria in 2011, I had a dream of establishing a children’s bookstore, but with the twist of events, everything changed and I fled with my family to Jordan and from there to Turkey. I am now realizing a fraction of my old dream to open an Arabic bookstore.”

“Resistance is our philosophy in life,” Qadri repeated several times in his interview with Al-Monitor. He added, “Of course the war affected Syrians’ lives in all aspects, including cultural aspects. All we are trying to do is to unite and resist. We contacted numerous intellectuals, writers and artists from Istanbul and abroad to mend some of the war’s aftershocks and to show our will not to surrender to the circumstances we live under in asylum.”

On another note, Hussam Mohammed, a Syrian researcher at Marmara University in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor, “The cultural scene in Syria was indeed affected, just like much of what the war destroyed. We faced a harsh asylum situation and Turkey was the first destination for most Syrians. However, the youths and intellectuals had to deal with language differences and the lack of Arab reference materials and books. Moreover, we were no longer participating in cultural seminars and artistic events like we used to in Aleppo.”

Mohammed talked about how cultural groups and literary seminars develop how young Arab people who visit the bookstore think. He said, “The bookstore eases our nostalgia for our country and brings back memories. It is an opportunity for rapprochement and convergence of opinions, especially among youths, whatever their views and intellectual orientation.”

Mohammed believes the ongoing war in Syria is bound to end someday and refugees will return to their home country. He believes that it is his and his colleagues' duty to prepare them for this moment by trying to converge the views of a new generation of young, displaced Syrians and to make this generation tolerate different cultural and political movements. He explained, “The Arab regimes deluded us into thinking that our conflict is against one another rather than against the authoritarian Arab regimes. Therefore, we must allow cultural dialogue between us and accept differences in order to build a nation based on justice, freedom and equality.”

Nawal Sobhi is a Syrian teacher and mother of two who has been residing in Istanbul for more than two years. She believes the Syrian groups, cultural ones in particular, have helped her raise her two children. She said, “We try to make up for the repercussions of the ongoing war in Syria and our displacement to Turkey. Arab and Syrian groups allowed me to find friends for my children. Arab libraries and cultural groups targeting children from different Arab countries and even from Turkey introduce children to cultures of new countries and help them tolerate differences.”

Cultural seminars, art exhibitions and poetry nights represent some of the cultural environments that Sobhi encourages. She said, “All of these events allow us to get to know the persons with whom we coexist in light of the state of isolationism and introversion in which our generation as adults has been raised. I want my children to be different. I believe this interaction will create a new kind of culture, literature and art that will produce a new generation founded on dialogue and participation rather than conflict.”

For his part, Mohamed Zakaria Anani, the former head of the Egyptian Writers Union in Alexandria, told Al-Monitor, “The political circumstances in the Arab region certainly affected the cultural field and the publishing industry, which reflects people’s inclinations.” He also stressed the importance of rapprochement and dialogue between the various Arab peoples and others.

According to Anani, a book is a form of resistance and publishing books has now become easier. He added, “Although many people read for the sake of reading by skimming through books or reading them passively, there is still a large segment of youths who are thirsty for knowledge and interested in differentiating between fact and fiction and [wanting to] get to know the other.”

He called for special attention to the new generation and for encouraging young people to pursue knowledge and education regardless of their circumstances and constraints.